Admitting he does not get particularly emotional, Hilliard Darby High School football coach John Santagata nonetheless lavished praise on his team after its fifth consecutive win to end the season.

Admitting he does not get particularly emotional, Hilliard Darby High School football coach John Santagata nonetheless lavished praise on his team after its fifth consecutive win to end the season.

The Panthers finished 6-4 overall and 4-2 in the OCC-Cardinal Division with a 12-7 win over visiting Dublin Scioto on Oct. 28.

"The last game is always tough," Santagata said. "I loved your effort. That is what it's all about. You gave everything you could to this program, and we appreciate that."

Darby started 1-4, with each of its losses coming against Division I playoff qualifiers, but still managed to avoid its first losing season since 2006.

The Panthers lost to Olentangy (31-10 on Aug. 26), Davidson (13-10 on Sept. 2), Bradley (41-20 on Sept. 16) and Dublin Jerome (20-17 on Sept. 23), with their only first-half win coming against Westerville South (24-3 on Sept. 9).

Bradley and Davidson made the playoffs in Region 3, and Jerome and Olentangy qualified in Region 2.

But after that start, which included a rash of injuries that claimed, among others, starting quarterback Cory Brooks and running back Jake Schnieder - a senior and junior, respectively - the Panthers reeled off a perfect second half of the year. They defeated Mount Vernon (42-0 on Sept. 30), Thomas Worthington (41-20 on Oct. 7), Worthington Kilbourne (16-6 on Oct. 14), Delaware (35-7 on Oct. 20) and Scioto.

Of those teams, only Scioto, which qualified for the Division II, Region 7 playoffs as the seventh seed and upset second-seeded Massillon Washington 31-21 in the first round Nov. 4 to improve to 8-3, had a winning record.

That did not matter to the Panthers.

"We would have loved to have been in the playoffs, of course, but there isn't much of a better feeling than ending with a win. I will remember this forever," said senior running back and defensive back Brandon Nicol, whose sack of Scioto quarterback Noah Densel for a safety in the fourth quarter of the season finale ended up being the game-winning play. "We all manned up and we held each other accountable every day at practice. I really think we just got better every single day, and we turned it on on Friday nights."

Darby finished 11th in Region 3 as the top eight teams made the playoffs.

The Panthers tied Scioto for second in the OCC-Cardinal, behind co-champions Bradley and Jerome (both 5-1) and ahead of Kilbourne (2-4), Delaware (1-5) and Thomas (0-6).

"We had quite a few injuries and we definitely had a tough schedule in the beginning," Santagata said. "We got beat up along the way, but our kids kept working. They pushed hard, and we didn't really change anything. Our kids kept believing and wanting to be successful."

Junior Henry Sopko took over at quarterback for Brooks, completing 21 of 36 passes for 265 yards with four touchdowns and three interceptions and rushing for a team-high 552 yards and four touchdowns on 108 carries.

"Henry took over and did a great job for Cory managing the offense," Santagata said.

Junior Ian Coverstone also became a solid dual threat as the season progressed, rushing for 391 yards and three touchdowns on 55 carries and catching six passes for 132 yards and four touchdowns.

Junior Aaron Hampshire was Darby's leading receiver yardage-wise, with 11 catches for 176 yards and a touchdown. He also averaged 38.5 yards per punt.

Senior defensive back Austin Rayburn, who also played running back, led the Panthers in tackles (73) and interceptions (three), while senior two-way lineman Mo Debyan had two of the team's four sacks.

Rayburn and senior linemen Josh Boyle, Keegan Farrell and Nick Russell were named first-team all-league. Sopko, junior wide receiver and defensive back Taj Long and sophomore defensive back Kris Day were second-team all-league, junior lineman Jacob Cover made special mention all-league and Coverstone was honorable mention all-league.

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